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Teacher's NIH Internship Helps Teens Solve “Crime”
Teacher's NIH Internship Helps Teens Solve “Crime”

Summary

A Maryland teacher translates her hands-on lab experiences to her high school classroom. Grants in Action
Luis San Sebastian had not been kidnapped. The Wheaton High School physical education teacher had gone on paternity leave.

But Marie Paul's ninth grade science class didn't know that. They just knew he wasn't at school, so for a couple of weeks last winter, their lab work took on fresh significance. Using gel electrophoresis—a fundamental tool of molecular biology—to distinguish the inks from three suspects' pens, Paul's students labored to identify the person who had written a "ransom note" about the missing San Sebastian.

They filled trays with hot, liquid agarose, which firms into a gel as it cools, and used the teeth of a comb to make wells in the gel. Placing the gel trays into an electrophoresis chamber, they added a buffer solution to complete an electrical circuit, micropipetted tiny samples of the inks into the wells and started running electricity through the gel. While the power was on, negatively charged molecules moved toward the positive end of the gel. The smaller the molecules, the farther and faster they moved.

Eventually the molecules of ink from each pen separated, forming a distinctive pattern, and only one matched the ink from the ransom note. Before the scientific sleuths could call the police to haul the culprit away, their missing P.E. teacher reappeared bearing baby pictures, and Paul revealed that the "crime" had been a classroom exercise inspired by her experiences working in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) laboratory last summer.

The paid internship, including two weeks of training and six weeks of laboratory work, is part of an HHMI-supported program to give hands-on experience in NIH labs to high school teachers and students in the Institute headquarters' home of Montgomery County. Since 1990, HHMI has committed approximately $3 million to the program.

Paul spent her summer working on the development of a vaccine for gonorrhea, in the Food & Drug Administration lab of Carolyn Deal, Ph.D. The experience has added an important dimension to her teaching. "It made me comfortable using the latest lab equipment," says Paul, "and now I can show and tell my students from personal experience that what I'm teaching them has practical applications, that it's something that real scientists do in labs every day."

A native of Haiti, Paul holds degrees in pharmacology and education from Howard University. So fascinated was she by her laboratory adventure that she is returning for a second summer this year. After her first NIH internship, Paul designed the crime-solving experiment with gel electrophoresis for her students. After her second one, she will develop and conduct a workshop for teachers from other schools.

Eight teachers and 16 teens participated in HHMI's Student and Teacher Program at NIH during the summer of 1999, the tenth year of the program. The students, who continue their research after school at NIH throughout the school year, are presenting their findings at an annual dinner symposium at HHMI headquarters May 4. Eighteen students and 10 teachers have been chosen to participate in the program this summer and during the 2000-2001 school year.